Sunday, April 23, 2006

Unexpected meanings in deverbal nouns

Deverbal nouns can selectively absorb and destroy the thematic roles of the verb from which they derive. If the verb destroy asks an agent and a theme (the destructor and what is destroyed), the noun destruction can appear without them: the destruction was terrible. This allows the noun to obtain idiosyncratic meanings. For instance, the English deverbal noun building (as the Spanish deverbal noun construcción) can be used to refer to an edifice. Notice this is not just the typical nominal of result (Grimshaw 1990, and others), because it is not the case that building refers to anything that has been built (a clock, for instance), but specifically to an edifice; so no any result of the action of building will be a possible reference; the choice of the particular result is entirely idiosyncratic.

And the way the thematic role is absorbed, destroyed or transmitted can create some ambiguities. For instance, the noun phrase la destrucción de Roma is ambiguous in Spanish: Roma can be the agent (the destroyer) or the theme (what is destroyed)---several English speakers have told me that this is not the case in the corresponding English phrase the destruction of Rome, where Rome can be only the theme.

I have dedicated more than one paper to this particular issue. A brief online version can be seen here (in Spanish). Now, thanks to my friend Gustavo Faverón Patriau, I have discovered a very interesting case, that confirms the picture outlined there.

The Peruvian Department of Health has published an educational handbook to instruct health promoters about the control of tuberculosis. The title of this handbook is Yo Promotor. Manual para promotores de TBC. You can read the handbook in the website of the Department. The subtitle contains the deverbal noun promotores (promoters). Take a look at the phrase:

(1) Manual para promotores de TBC
(lit. Handbook for Promoters of TB)

It is possible to interpret the phrase “de TBC” as the theme of promoter. If so, the meaning is an unintended one: a manual to promote TB. What happened? Does the Department of Health want to promote TB? Certainly not.

In this case, the Spanish deverbal noun promotor underwent the same process that building. The original phrase is promotor de salud (“promoter of health”), which has became promotor without loosing the meaning “de salud”; in other words, in the professional jargon of health promoters, the noun promotor simply means “promoter of health”, in the same way building means edifice.

If that is the case, there is nothing odd with (1). The phrase “de TBC” cannot be the theme because the deverbal noun has absorbed the theme already (it is “de salud”). So (1) can only mean a handbook for promoters of health about TB. Of course, (1) is odd for speakers that do not share this jargon.